Choosing Which Texts to Teach or Not to Teach

Talking about Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers (1937) recently during the NEH Summer Institute, two questions arose: Why should we even read this novel? Should we even consider teaching it? Both of these questions are very important to consider when thinking about whether or not one should “expose” students to certain texts. In this post, I do not want to justify whether or not we should read Saxon’s novel or whether or not it should be taught in the classroom. Instead, I want to highlight the conversation that occurred and discuss it in a broader context of what texts we should consider bringing our students in contact with. Partly, this gets into discussions of canon formation which I have written about briefly before.

One of the main reasons the question arose about why we would even read Saxon’s novel came up because the novel, written by the white Saxon, focuses on a Creole (mixed-race) community in Louisiana. We read one of Saxon’s early stories, “Cane River” (1926), as well, and that story contains blatant stereotypical images of African Americans and even sees the narrator placing himself in the black community with the use of “we.” These aspects of the story, and others, make it a text that clearly adheres to prevailing ideas by some during the early part of the twentieth century and that others strove tirelessly to counter. Eleven years later, Saxon’s presentation becomes more nuanced and sympathetic in his novel; however, there are instances where, even while he tries to counter prevailing ideas about race, he falls back into old tropes and stereotypical representations that dehumanize the black and Creole characters.

Even with these problems, Saxon’s novel presents a unique aspect of Louisiana society, the clear distinction between four classes of people: wealthy whites, poor whites, Creoles of color, and blacks. Other authors had written about Louisiana’s social distinctions, but not author before Saxon, to my knowledge, focused on the Creole community outside of New Orleans. For this reason, his text works in contrast to the works of Ernest J. Gaines who constructs a tapestry that tackles the same social hierarchy, close to thirty years after Saxon’s novel initially appeared. Because of this, reading the two novels together becomes important to see the ways that each author presents the area they write about.

220px-confessionsofnatturnerOne of the main problems that arise from Saxon’s novel, though, occurs because he is a white man writing about black and Creole characters, even providing interior insight. This becomes problematic, as it did with William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) which led to John Henrik Clarke’s William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968), because of Saxon’s privileged status and his previous representations of black life. Now, the question remains: Why should we read Saxon, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, George Fitzhugh, or others? For me, we should read them to better understand the context that authors like Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, Ishmael Reed, Sherely Anne Williams, and others are responding to in their own works. Gaines has said, “The white writer feels that he can observe the black man’s world and write about it. The black writer not only observes but must participate daily in the white man’s world.” To me, this sums up why Saxon’s attempts, no matter his motivation, prove problematic.

When it comes to students, though, the issue becomes something more difficult to handle. If we present a classroom with something like “Cane River” first, then the text may reinforce some of the stereotypes they hold and cause them to strengthen their own beliefs. Rather than working chronologically (from earliest to most contemporary), we should think about flipping the script to unbalance the presentation of the material and issues at hand. For example, if we think about using Saxon’s novel in the classroom, we should start with Gaines’s  Catherine Carmier (1964). If we teach William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), we should start with Kelley’s A Different Drummer (1962) or Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946) and work backwards to see what these authors say before seeing what Faulkner says. In this way, we are not privileging one author above another one, and by doing this, we show students about the discursive nature of literature, art, music, history, and society as a whole.

For me, I am continually thinking about David Lionel Smith’s comments near the end of “Bloodlines and Patriarchs.” In writing about Faulkner and Gaines and different perspectives of viewing Gaines in relation to Faulkner (either through influence or parody), Smith states,

Both perspectives, however, would have the likely effect of perpetuating a hierarchical concept of discursive relations by granting a monumental status to the earlier text. Such a view would make Gaines not only temporally but logically and ontologically secondary to Faulkner. In general, the problem of how to address the work of writers who labor in the shadows of great artists without subordinating the former or disparaging the latter deserves broader attention by literary theorists. To achieve this end, we need an egalitarian hermanutic, which would insist upon locating both authors as respondents to and participants in an on-going cultural discourse. This hermanutic would allow for a chronological ordering but would also facilitate an emphasis on discursive engagement between texts. (59)

Smith proposes a view that does not favor the “progenitor” but looks at each author in relationship to one another and to their own “cultural discourse.” In this way, we would examine the works in a discursive manner rather than as a teacher/mentor relationship. Critics such as bell hooks have proposed something similar, and I believe that by reorganizing our thinking in a non-chronological manner, we can better serve our students and ourselves in the classroom.  In my own reading, I typically read backwards from a text, tracing the bread crumbs into the past and seeing where the first work drew upon and countered previous works.

There is a lot more that could be said here. As I said earlier, I am using Saxon as an example in this post, and I am curious to hear about your experiences in similar situations. How do you approach teaching texts or works that present some of the same issues that arise with Saxon? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Smith, David Lionel. “Bloodlines and Patriarchs: Of Love and Dust and Its Revisions of Faulkner.” Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Ed. David C. Estes. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. 46-61.

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